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Can You Read a Drunk Chicken? Then You Are in Luck!


June 30, 2011 by Valerie Elkins

Despite the obvious fact that Japanese writing or kana looks like the tracks of a drunken chicken – reading Japanese is even more difficult than you might think …even for the Japanese!

The Japanese have 3 alphabets; kanji which are the characters that were borrowed from the Chinese centuries ago. Hiragana which is used in adding grammatical endings to the kanji, as well as being used for children’s writing and commercials, etc. Then there is katakana which is generally used for foreign words (non-Japanese) and as far as it relates to genealogy, it is used to spell out a person’s name if the writer is unsure of the correct kanji to use.

To graduate from high school, a Japanese student would need to know 1850 kanji, as well as the hiragana and katakana characters – which are a lot fewer, but he will have to know over 3000 kanji for college. Compare that to only 26 letters we need to know in English! But it is not just the sheer number of characters that is so daunting, but the many, many different ways those characters can be read! For example, a character may be called shi, but may not may not be pronounced as shi. And kanji can be read differently depending on the time in history, the geographic area or the preference for use, i.e. the last name Usami for instance can also be read and pronounced as Usagi.

Japanese writing system or kana, has changed a lot over the years. Japanese under the age of 60 or so, probably cannot read many of the characters that are written on the old koseki without a lot of practice, and special kanji dictionaries. While I speak Japanese and can read hiragana and katakana alphabets as well as some kanji characters, it would never be enough to accurately translate a koseki. Which is why I hire native Japanese translators to translate old Japanese records for me. They have the skill to read older kana … but just so you know, even they have a hard time with some of the translations! Older koseki records were written by hand – so imagine adding poor, or unusual penmanship written in small little boxes into the equation!

Example of Japanese character changes over the years

So what’s the bottom line? I don’t think you will ever get a good and accurate translation of records from Google Translate! Find an older, native Japanese person, or at least a very skilled younger one to translate for you. When you are doing your family’s genealogy you will need an accurate translation to do further research. Sorry, if I discouraged you – but reading the tracks of a drunk chicken would really be easier!




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